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Guest Chef Benjamin Udave

This month’s featured recipe demonstrates that simplicity in ingredients and preparation can produce the rich flavors of an all day simmer, though it takes only a few hours and some well matched fresh components to make.
Image of Chef Benjamin
“Halibut Cheeks with Lemon Artichoke Risotto” comes from the kitchen of Chef Benjamin Udave of the Jonathan Club at the Beach, a private social club in Santa Monica, California. Here’s a dish that combines the warm flavors of comfort food with a white tablecloth elegance that satisfies both eye and taste appeal. Chef Benjamin’s Lemon Artichoke Risotto is actually a two-recipe process. First, artichoke hearts are slowly braised in a luscious brew of chicken stock, lemon juice, shallots, garlic and a few fresh herbs. This transforms them into creamy lemon flavored morsels for both the risotto and plating. The chef’s strict adherence to a traditional preparation of the classic Italian rice dish is a quintessential recipe within a recipe that all serious home chefs should make their own.

The chef’s simple approach continues with the treatment of the other classic flavors in this wonderful recipe. A colorful mix of finely diced heirloom tomato varieties are lightly tossed with fresh basil, chives and good olive oil, then drizzled with balsamic vinegar. This salsa-like mixture is presented on the plate as a strip of color garnished with artichoke pieces. The heirlooms add a splash of garden freshness to the full bodied flavors of the risotto and artichokes. The chef then doubles up on flavor with a very uncomplicated approach to the fish. If halibut cheeks are not readily available, Benjamin suggests fresh scallops as a good substitute. Pancetta is Italian bacon that has been cured with salt and spices but not smoked. If you have not tried it, your life is about to change! After frying the diced pancetta until crispy, the fish is seared in the bacon’s drippings. The pancetta is then crushed into bits to garnish the risotto and fish. When I served Chef Benjamin’s creation to guests at my own table, this pancetta garnish was voted as the wow factor by everyone. Hint: Be prepared…my guests asked, more like demanded, that I cook more pancetta for their second helpings!

Chef Benjamin calls for a tower of micro greens to complete the look and taste of his creation. Microgreens are the smallest possible form of salad greens, herbs, edible flowers and leafy vegetables. They are filament-thin delicate plants that are bursting with explosive flavor. Unfortunately, this highly perishable item is only available to the professional chef and, at this time of year, those of us tending a crop of Microgreens in our own summer gardens. There are many leafy garnishes that can be substituted: radish greens, watercress, arugula or various sprout varieties…be creative. This recipe relies on the flavors of the very freshest elements available. Although the heart of metropolitan Southern California is not exactly a farmland community, Benjamin takes advantage of his close proximity to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and the unique relationship he enjoys with Melissa’s Food Service Division that has enabled him to develop direct access to same-day harvests from local growers.

The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is one of the largest and most well established operations of its kind in the country. Annually over 900,000 consumers, including many professional food buyers, visit this three-day-a week, year-round market at one of its four alternating locations around the city. Benjamin shops this market weekly, not with a grocery cart but in cooperation with the Melissa’s food service staff, who then arranges to have the chef’s orders picked up and delivered. It’s a very unique arrangement that only works because of the trust that the company and Benjamin share. “Professionally, it doesn’t get any better,” explained the chef. “I have access to fresh produce from around the world through Melissa’s global contacts, as well as a direct field to fork supply chain with local producers. Having such a wealth of ingredients at my fingertips is a source of continual inspiration, so I am always working on new ways to take advantage of such a large array of flavors.”

Managing the kitchen in a private club that has been around for 114 years comes with its own unique set of challenges that is a continual balance of tradition with diversity. Chef Benjamin must be well practiced in the execution of a collection of dishes that have been club favorites for decades. “Actually, these recipes provide a great culinary discipline. The preparation of each dish follows a process that was set up long before I became Executive Chef here. Getting them right means an attention to detail that carries over into the original menu presentations that I create.” Chef Benjamin’s culinary originality gets lots of opportunity to shine at the club’s many special events that run the gamut from weddings to private parties, wine club dinners and other club activities that each call for an inventive menu. “I enjoy taking a familiar dish and giving it my own twist. My cooking depends on the straightforward flavors of fresh produce without a lot of outside help from heavy sauces that can change the natural flavors rather than enhancing them.” This reverence for freshness certainly explains why Chef Benjamin has such a special working relationship with Melissa’s. It’s a collaboration that we expect to cultivate for many more seasons to come as we wander the farmers’ market together.

Halibut Cheeks with Lemon Artichoke Risotto (Serves Two)
Image of Halibut Cheeks with Lemon Artichoke Risotto
Part I – Braised Artichoke Hearts

2 large Globe Artichoke hearts, whole
3 Shallots, rough chopped
1 Garlic head, rough chopped
¼ cup Lemon Juice
½ cup Chicken stock
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¼ oz. Thyme (whole)
¼ oz. Parsley (whole)

Cut artichoke hearts in quarters. Combine all ingredients, except the canned hearts, in a small pot and cook over a low heat for 30 minutes. Add canned hearts and cook another 15 minutes. Remove hearts from liquid, cool and then cut into quarters again. Use in Risotto recipe and to garnish tomatoes.

Part II – Lemon Artichoke Risotto

1 small yellow onion, fine dice
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup white wine
1 cups Arborio rice
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp lemon zest
1½ cup artichoke hearts, braised & quartered
1 tsp sea salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 oz. Parmesan cheese
4 oz. butter

Melt half the butter in a large frying pan. Sweat the onions until translucent and then add the garlic. Continue to sweat both for another 2 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and sauté until the grains begin to turn golden brown, deglaze with the white wine and reduce. Continue to stir in enough chicken stock to keep contents covered and cook slowly for 5-7 minutes. At that point add the lemon zest, artichoke hearts, salt and pepper and the rest of the chicken stock. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and finish off by mixing in the parmesan cheese, the rest of the butter and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Part III – Halibut Cheeks

6 halibut cheeks (or 8 sea scallops)
1 lemon (juice only)
Salt & pepper to taste
3 oz Pancetta, diced
1 tsp butter Garnish with fresh Microgreens (sub. with watercress, arugula or alfalfa sprouts)

Place fish on a tray and pat dry. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice and then set aside. In a cast iron or nonstick pan, slowly render the pancetta until crispy, remove and drain on a paper towel. Add the butter to the pan drippings, when the mixture begins to brown add the fish and sear on each side for 2 minutes.

Part IV – Heirloom Tomato Salad

4 Heirloom tomatoes – varying colors & shapes
1 oz fresh chives, fine diced
3 oz fresh basil leaves, julienned
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Balsamic Vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste

Dice tomatoes very fine into 1/8”slivers and place in a medium bowl. Add chives, basil, salt and pepper, toss lightly in olive oil. Serve with a drizzle of Balsamic.

Run a line of the heirloom salad across the center of the plate, garnish with a few of the remaining artichoke hearts. Arrange three small portions of risotto on the plate around the tomato mixture. Place pieces of fish on top of the risotto, garnish with crispy pancetta and top with a tower of Microgreens or any of the aforementioned substitutes.
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